Artist behind scenic art in ‘Fun Home’ puts ideas of graphic novel centerstage
Illustration by Louisville artist Jenrose Fitzgerald depicting the scene in "Fun Home" with the song "Ring of Keys." Illustration courtesy of Jenrose Fitzgerald.
By Jewel Shaw
Louisville Male High School, Class of 2022
Although Louisville artist Jenrose Fitzgerald was never onstage in Pandora Productions’ recent run of “Fun Home,” her work with the company helped bring to life this musical of a family’s complex life in a small town that involves a daughter’s story of clambering her way out of the closet and a father’s untimely death.
Fitzgerald’s influence was all over the set, where many pieces were painted solid white and outlined in black. When actors walked onto the stage, they entered a comic book-like world with projections of illustrations Fitzgerald had created for each scene. Fitzgerald’s work was designed to remind the audience that they were watching the musical adaptation of the inspiringly drawn memoir of the same name by Alison Bechdel.
The Louisville artist found inspiration from Bechdel’s comic itself to make the sets and background drawings. Two panels projected in the musical were recreated from panels in the book in Fitzgerald’s detailed art style. Fitzgerald did not want to erase the themes in Bechdel’s work, but rather expand on them.
In the Broadway version of “Fun Home,” set designers worked to bring the audience straight into the protagonist’s life using ornate fabrics and furniture — such as that found in Bechdel’s childhood home. Pandora, said Producing Artistic Director Michael Drury, could not afford to recreate the Broadway set because it would require advanced technology and hydraulic lifts to take the heavy furniture pieces on and off stage.
So, he and Fitzgerald decided to bring the graphic novel that is “Fun Home” to life by paying homage to the art style of Alison Bechdel combined with Fitzgerald’s personal style.
“Wouldn’t it be great if the audience could see that? It would be nice for you to be able to see a little bit of what that looks like,” Fitzgerald said about portraying Bechdel’s themes.
Fitzgerald was ready for this project, having been a reader of Alison Bechdel’s work and a longtime fan of Bechdel’s comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” which ran from 1983 to 2008.
“They could be my friends! They were so quirky and diverse,” Fitzgerald said. “They felt really authentic and discussing topics that interested me.”
Fitzgerald had also read Bechdel’s graphic novel, “Fun Home,” which began as a story of queer struggle represented through literature and was translated into a musical.
Fitzgerald said “Fun Home” playwright Lisa Kron surprised her with how well she was able to directly translate the ideas of the graphic novel. This family tragicomedy relating to queer audiences of many ages is also a musical equally accessible to a wide audience.
The fact that Fitzgerald found inspiration in the graphic novel — and not in the musical — isn’t surprising. Although the musical ran Off-Broadway before eventually moving to Broadway where it won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book, Fitzgerald did not believe greatly in the musical’s ability to succeed as an adaptation when she first heard about it. She imagined it could not succeed like the graphic novel.
Even though she bought the original cast recording, she admitted, “It’s literally still in the plastic packaging in my house.”
But after she saw the musical on stage with her own artwork, Fitzgerald loved what it became as a show. She is proud this production embraced the style and feeling that Bechdel produced through her art, which originally drew Fitzgerald to the work.
“A big part of the story is not the story of her looking back on her past but that she made sense of her past through the art itself,” Fitzgerald said. “She made sense of it through art.”